Diane Reay, University of Cambridge

For the first decade of the 2000s I was a member of FAAB – Feminists against Academic Bollocks. We wrote satirical sketches, sang and danced, tried to embody innovative forms of resistance to the academic status quo, and gave conference performances.  In part, this was about performance as reclaiming a feminist identity,  but it was also centrally about what is legitimated and delegitimated in the academy,  and the gendering and classing of the academic persona.

One of the songs we sang to the lyrics of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’ started:

At first we were feminists, we were organised

Then we entered academia and were atomised

But then we spent so many nights

cursing how  you did us wrong

And we grew strong

And we learned how to get along

But now they’re back

From outer space

With neoliberal ways

that put sad looks upon our face

We need to change the way we work

We need to make more of a fuss

Well we haven’t made nearly enough of a fuss! And it is neoliberal ways rather than feminisms that have got stronger.

The neo-liberal university

For the last three decades scholarship in British universities has been increasingly under threat from theories and practices conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms. The main corollary of positioning higher education as a private investment is that there is little commitment, either in Government policy, or the public imagination, to Higher Education as a public good. This onslaught of privatization within the university sector is not just about turning a university education from a public entitlement into a private investment, it is also an attack on the University as a public institution.

There has been a creeping privatization of higher education over the last thirty years, resulting in over a third of universities out-sourcing aspects of their work, from the running of their student residences to the maintenance of their buildings.

However, now we are facing more far reaching privatization of many university services. The stated objective, ‘greater efficiency’ is yet another spurious means to open up the university sector to what is termed ‘the free market’. However, the two main consequences are the transformation of a public institution into a source of profit for many private firms, and a shift in the main focus of academia from teaching and learning to marketing.

Just as insidious is the conversion of knowledge into something to be sold, traded and consumed. We no longer have independent knowledge underpinned by academic freedom, but a knowledge economy where the value of knowledge is decided by political elites on the basis of its utility to them. The result is that we have seen the death of universities as centres of critique. Rather, the role of academia has become one of servicing the status quo rather than challenging it in the name of justice, human flourishing, freedom of thought or alternative visions of the future.

Recent funding changes are yet another nail in the coffin of the public university and a critical questioning academia.  If we need evidence of how far academia in the UK has progressed along the road towards full blown academic capitalism the following facts from an article by George Monbiot in 2009  provide telling evidence:

  • The Medical Research Council is run by a billionaire arms manufacturer
  • The Natural Environment Council is run by the head of a large construction company
  • The Higher Education Funding Council is run by the chairman of a real estate firm
  • Oxford University has a Rupert Murdoch Professorial Chair of Language and Communications

However, as well as adopting the worst of current neoliberal capitalism, academia has retained the worst of its elitist past. It is a territory which is heavily discursively policed; where, for example, the prevailing hegemony means  modernist statements that assert gender and class inequality can be discounted as simplistic, reeking of old discredited metanarratives. The ruling principles which guide all hegemonies; namely that they present elite interests as everyone’s interests are rarely made explicit and challenged.

Consequences for Academic Work

Between 2004 and 2010 the total number of students in UK universities increased by 9%. Over the same period the number of HE managers working in finance, marketing, widening participation, human resources, student services and quality assurance increased by 33%.  Within contemporary HE. professional judgement has largely been replaced by the wholesale importation of micro-management practices of audit, inspection, monitoring, efficiency and value for money.

But over the past decade we have also seen the invasion of impact. UK academia has been captured by the impact agenda in which the usefulness of academic research is judged against its wider social and economic usefulness. But usefulness is contingent upon relations of power. Useful research is all too often that which those with the power to make judgments believe is valuable to their interests. While impact is increasingly seen as necessary, natural, self-evident and unquestionable, I would argue that it is being socially and historically constructed to serve the interests of British elites. They can now control the focus and type of research conducted. The risks for research that is critical of policy and the status quo, are self-evident.

Alongside an insidious, creeping control of academic work we have rampant casualization. Fourteen years ago I wrote a paper called ‘Dim dross’, outlining the low status and poor working conditions of junior researchers.  Despite campaigning at the level of the union and through professional associations, nothing has changed. There is now an even wider gulf between academic labour and academic capital. Subordinate workers, overwhelmingly women, service those who generate academic capital, overwhelmingly men. The appropriation of one’s intellectual labour remains a constant hazard for research staff, becoming a normative, routine practice within the academy. Junior research staff are vital to the professional status and career advancement of grant holders (academics on stable contracts). There is a clear process of intellectual extraction in which the labours of research staff both in the field and outside of it are converted into both academic and symbolic capital, which accrue to the project directors rather than the researcher.

According to Hesa 43% of teaching staff and 68% of research-only staff are on fixed term contracts in the UK. Only the catering and residential care industries employ a higher proportion of fixed-term contract workers.  However, we are now seeing a new deeper form of exploitation in UK higher education – zero hours contracts – where scholars go hungry as a result of casualisation,

The University and College Union estimated in July 2013 that 47 per cent of ‘teaching-only’ contracts are zero-hours contracts, which offer workers no certainty on their hours or income. The consequence is that without guaranteed income, academics on zero-hours contracts are unable to make financial or employment plans on a year-to-year or even month-to-month basis and can be driven to resort to ‘bin diving’. Zero-hours contracts generate a loss of professional dignity alongside a loss of voice for staff, and are part of a trend towards increasing numbers of badly paid, unheard, insecure and overworked staff.  In a Guardian article, teaching and research associates spoke of ‘never knowing that they will have enough to survive’.


The UK academic status quo over the last 30 years has been one that increasingly valorizes the entrepreneurial competitive individual but, with the growing importance of economic and political impact, it has also become a culture that rewards and sanctions compliance and conformity and, moral as well as  professional, flexibility.

So what has happened to ‘the community of scholars’ in the new managerialist era? I suggest that it has been reconfigured as an upper echelon of elite, mainly male, academics serviced by an army of casualised teaching, research and administrative staff, a poor shadow of what a community should be.  And do I have any solutions?  Apart from trying to speak out about these developments, I am afraid not. I feel as complicit and compromised as many other academics are feeling. FAAB, the Feminist Collective I mentioned at the beginning, often ended performances with this short poem from Adrienne Rich. I think it encapsulates a very important message for all of us ensnared in contemporary neoliberal academia:

If not with Others, How?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

If not with others, how?

[Adrienne Rich  –  Reprinted from Blood, Bread and Poetry (New York; W.W. Norton, 1986)]


Diane Reay is professor of Education at Cambridge University.